Sophia Mtama from Mtwara, Tanzania and Susan Chimbayo from Blantyre, Malawi at the Empowerment of Women in Agriculture breakfast meeting.
Photo credits: Naomi Shadracks/Oxfam

Women's land rights and livelihoods key to Africa trade

The African Union’s blueprint for transforming the continent wants to see fully empowered women with equal access and opportunity in all spheres of life. The ambition is for African women to have equal economic rights, including owning and inheriting property such as land, signing a contract, and registering and managing a business. To achieve the Africa we want or Agenda 2063, the African Union formulated the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

The 2023 African Union Summit for Heads of State and Government was held on 18-19 February under the theme “Acceleration of the implementation of the African Continental Free Trade Area”. Civil society and community leaders too gathered in Addis Ababa to discuss the theme and share experiences on the margins of the summit. Among them was Sophia Mtama from Mtwara, Tanzania and Susan Chimbayo from Blantyre, Malawi.

The experiences of Sophia and Susan confirms that women smallholder farmers in Africa can thrive if they receive the right support from the government. Sophia is a Cashew nut farmer who also does the processing of cashews. In 2022, she, along with other members of the Wazo group, exported cashews to Germany. Susan, on the other hand, leads Nandoro Farmers Association, which produces Pigeon peas in Malawi and exports them to other countries. The two women, both widows, engage in agriculture on land they bought with their deceased husbands; for instance, Sophia has 52 acres of land. They also receive support from local governments and organisations, enabling them to overcome obstacles that most African women experience.

There are other women like Sophia and Susan in Africa. But the presence of Sophia and Susan at the panel in Addis Ababa during the Empowerment of Women in Agriculture breakfast meeting was important. Listening to them share their experience strengthened our belief that women in Africa can be the main investors and participate in cross border trade if existing structural barriers that hinder them from development are removed.  

Experience from other trade liberalisation areas has taught us that trade liberalisation processes must address structural inequalities, such as women's land rights in Africa, in order to deliver fair and sustainable outcomes. As African governments are ratifying their laws to implement the AfCFTA, most African women are practising agriculture; more than half of Africa's agricultural labour comes from women despite existing inequality in ownership, access to and control of the land.

Trade liberalisation has affected women immensely by promoting corporate investments in land with the intent of expanding and intensifying large-scale agriculture while abandoning agriculture practices by smallholder farmers many of whom are women, under the assumption that they lack capabilities to produce and trade.

Yet women farmers like Sophia and Susan are the backbone of rural livelihoods; they produce more than half of all food grown worldwide. But many risk losing their land to corporate agricultural investments when their governments do not trust and empower them. 

To have more women like Sophia and Susan who sell their agricultural produce in their countries and export across the continent and beyond, governments should do the following: 

  • Support women to enjoy the fruits of their labour through trade. When agricultural production becomes profitable through exports to international markets, control and decision-making power tend to pass from women, who work the land but do not hold title to it, to the land owners, usually men, elites or governments acting in the 'public interest'.
  • Engage women directly in decision-making about their land and livelihoods and avoid using multistakeholder platforms to substitute for meaningful engagement of women. Often multistakeholder platforms hide power asymmetries; women, mainly from rural areas, understand and have solutions to pressing issues facing land and agriculture, such as climate change.
  • For Africa to implement the AfCFTA in a manner that can lead to fair and sustainable outcomes for all, African governments need to strengthen women‘s rights to land and natural resources. This is not a new request. Agenda 2063 calls for the government to fully empower women in all spheres, with equal social, political and economic rights, including the rights to own and inherit property, sign contracts, register and manage businesses. In 2016, the AU launched a campaign to allocate 30 percent of land to African Women by 2025 for Africa's economic transformation.
  • Now is the time for governments to invest in supporting women farmers and their ecologically sound production practises. After the launch of the Maputo protocol in 2003, the governments of Africa agreed that countries would spend 10 percent of their public expenditure on agriculture to increase agricultural productivity. Investment in agriculture means enabling women farmers to overcome obstacles they face and supporting them to build capacity and access markets.
  • Governments should firmly regulate investments to protect women’s and communities’ livelihoods and food security. In many countries, governments welcome investors by pushing women small-scale farmers and their communities aside. Recent Land Matrix research shows that most of these African land deals failed. Countries have lost revenue from these communities' livelihoods; the communities have become poorer, and food insecurity threatens many countries.

By integrating more than 1.2 billion people doing business together, the AfCFTA can be a game changer for people in Africa. However, governments must empower their people, particularly women smallholder farmers, as investors and protect and secure their land and natural resource rights.